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On a cloudy Christmas morning last year, a rocket carrying the most powerful space telescope ever built blasted off from a launchpad in French Guiana. After reaching its destination in space about a month later, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) began sending back sparkling presents to humanity—jaw-dropping images that are revealing our universe in stunning new ways.
Innovation of the Year
The James Webb Space Telescope by NASA: A game-changing new instrument to see the cosmos
Once a generation, an astronomical tool arrives that surpasses everything that came before it. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is just such a creation. After more than two decades and $9.7 billion in the making, JWST launched on December 25, 2021. Since February of this year, when it first started imaging—employing a mirror and aperture nearly three times larger in radius than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope—JWST’s vibrant images have captured the attention of the world.
The JWST can see deep into fields of forming stars. It can peer 13 billion years back in time at ancient galaxies, still in their nursery. It can peek at exoplanets, seeing them directly where astronomers would have once had to reconstruct meager traces of their existence. It can teach us about how those stars and galaxies came together from primordial matter, something Hubble could only glimpse.
While Hubble circles in low Earth orbit, JWST instead sits hundreds of thousands of miles farther away, in Earth’s shadow. It will never see sunlight. There, protected even further by a multi-layer sunshield thinner than a human fingernail, the telescope chills at -370 degrees F, where JWST’s infrared sight works best. Its home is a fascinating location called L2, one of several points where the sun and Earth’s gravities balance each other out.
All this might just be JWST’s prologue. Since the telescope used less fuel than initially anticipated when reaching its perch, the instrument might have enough to last well past its anticipated 10-year-long window. We can’t wait to see what else it dazzles us with.
Parallel Reality by Delta: A screen customized for you
You’ve probably found yourself running through an airport at some point, squinting up at a screen filled with rows of flight information. A futuristic new offering from Delta and a startup called Misapplied Sciences aims to change that. At Detroit Metro Airport, an installation can show travelers customized information for their flight. A scan of your boarding pass in McNamara Terminal is one way to tell the system who you are. Then, when you look at the overhead screen, you see that it displays only personalized data about your journey, like which gate you need to find. The tech behind the system works because the pixels in the display itself can shine in one of 18,000 directions, meaning many different people can see distinct information while looking at the same screen at the same time.
Electronic bag tags by Alaska Airlines: The last tag you’ll need (for one airline)
Believe it or not, some travelers do still check bags, and a new offering from this Seattle-based airline aims to make that process easier. Flyers who can get an electronic bag tag from Alaska Airlines (at first, 2,500 members of their frequent flier plan will get them, and in 2023 they’ll be available to buy) can use their mobile phone to create the appropriate luggage tag on this device’s e-ink display while at home, up to 24 hours before a flight. The 5-inch-long tag itself gets the power it needs to generate the information on the screen from your phone, thanks to an NFC connection. After the traveler has done this step at home, they just need to drop the tagged bag off in the right place at the airport, avoiding the line to get a tag.
Alice by Eviation: A totally electric commuter airplane
The aviation industry is a major producer of carbon emissions. One way to try to solve that problem is to run aircraft on electric power, utilizing them just for short hops. That’s what Eviation aims to do with a plane called Alice: 8,000 pounds of batteries in the belly of this commuter aircraft give its two motors the power it needs to fly. In fact, it made its first flight in September, a scant but successful eight minutes in the air. Someday, as battery tech improves, the company hopes that it can carry nine passengers for distances of 200 miles or so.
OPV Black Hawk by Sikorsky: A military helicopter that flies itself
Two pilots sit up front at the controls of the Army’s Black Hawk helicopters, but what if that number could be zero for missions that are especially hazardous? That’s exactly what a modified UH-60 helicopter can do, a product of a DARPA program called ALIAS, which stands for Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System. The self-flying whirlybird made its first flights with zero occupants on board in February, and in October, it took flight again, even carrying a 2,600-pound load beneath it. The technology comes from helicopter-maker Sikorsky, and allows the modified UH-60 to be flown by two pilots, one pilot, or zero. The idea is that this type of autonomy can help in several ways: to assist the one or two humans at the controls, or as a way for an uninhabited helicopter to execute tasks like flying somewhere dangerous to deliver supplies without putting any people on board at risk.
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